The White House announced Monday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, served with federal charges in his hospital bed as his family and investigators continued looking for answers in the Boston Marathon bombings, will be tried in civilian court — instead of as an enemy combatant, as a handful of Republican politicians and conservatives demanded. "He will not be treated as an enemy combatant," press secretary Jay Carney said. "We will prosecute this terrorist through our civilian system of justice. Under U.S. law, United States citizens can not be tried in military commissions." The law was pretty clear: Tsarnaev is an American citizen who committed his crime on American soil. So far, there's no evidence tying him to al Qaeda. This is a moment when rationality beat emotion. What the Tsarnaevs allegedly did was really awful. But the Constitution still covers people who committed really awful crimes.
NPR highlighted the difference, perhaps unintentionally, in a Monday story on Morning Edition about Tsarnaev's status. On the side of trying him as a civilian, NPR interviewed several legal scholars. On the side of trying him as an enemy combatant, NPR aired clips of New York Rep. Peter King, and interviewed a man at a memorial to those who died at the marathon. "The son-of-a-bitch put a bomb right next to a little kid — how evil is that?" the man said. "Naw, we have to send a message." Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Dan Coats all said — almost immediately following his capture Friday night — that Tsarnaev should be tried as an enemy combatant because Tsarnaev allegedly committed terrorism. But the government can't just name terrorists enemy combatants. As Mother Jones's Adam Serwer points out, the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act defines "enemy combatant" as "a person who was a part of or substantially supported Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners." So far, we have not seen evidence the Tsarnaevs "substantially supported" al Qaeda.